Dear sisters, dear brothers,
“Father, the air raid alarm has been going for over two hours. Are you in the shelter?” As I was beginning to write, I received this message from Vera, from the House of Saint Martin in Fastiv. Tonight, just like yesterday, the air raid was announced covering almost the whole country; the news reported multiple rocket attacks in different cities of Ukraine. Although the attacks are mostly aimed at railroads and strategic locations, we all know those rockets don’t always hit their targets. The day before my return to Kyiv, one of the rockets destroyed a newly finished apartment building in the vicinity of our priory. Father Peter, who was working in the garden at that moment, could clearly hear the sound of the missiles and then strong explosions. There was an attack on Fastiv at the same time. Luckily the rockets hit a little farther from their priory. “If the explosion had been a little bigger,” Father Misha said, “all the stained glass of the church windows would have certainly been destroyed.”
Seventy days of war have passed. This war turned many Ukrainian cities into ruins, made millions homeless, and stole the lives and health of thousands. Until recently, I would never have thought I would follow after the generation of my grandparents, who divided their time into “before the war” and “during the war”. One would like to write “after the war.”
I’m returning to writing letters from Ukraine after a long break. I was hesitating, unsure if it’s necessary or if we’re all already too tired of what’s happening here. However, many different people encouraged me to not give up writing. Although the situation is already much different than it was a month ago, the war is still going on and still surprising us, provoking reflection, prayer, help, or even being there for each other.
I returned to Ukraine on Friday. Crossing the border didn’t take much time. The traffic both ways is much lighter than it was before the war, except obviously for those who are using the opportunity provided by more lenient Ukrainian import codes to bring cars from Western Europe. Apparently, they wait on the Polish side for up to a couple of days. The tents that had been used very recently by volunteers to distribute food to the refugees were empty.
The trip from the Polish border to Fastiv takes the whole day because you have to drive almost 600 km. The traffic is lighter than it was before the war. The checkpoints, which until recently seriously slowed down driving in western Ukraine, have disappeared. If not for the military vehicles I passed from time to time, you might forget there is war. The most serious problem in traveling is caused by lack of fuel. As a result of war damage and cutting off deliveries from Russia and Belarus, filling the tank is a great feat nowadays. Most of the gas stations are closed. Some offer only one kind of fuel. And if you somehow manage to find the station that has what you need, you must wait in a long line for the possibility of purchasing 20 or sometimes only 10 liters of gas.
The last part of the way, I drove through areas that recently used to be occupied or targeted by the Russian army. It was dark, and everything seemed very empty. At times I had a strange, eerie feeling, especially while driving through the woods. They say that suspicious characters still wander among them. I’m lucky I didn’t have to stop and get out of the car, since when I was driving the same way yesterday, I drove past a group of army engineers checking the side of the road. Landmines are now a real curse for the inhabitants of villages and towns around Kyiv. These “souvenirs” left by the Russians have already deprived dozens of people of life.
I reached Fastiv past curfew. Luckily, the man guarding the entrance to the city showed full understanding, and after a proper admonishment that I shouldn’t be here at that time, they told me, “Keep going, Father; it’s not like you should wait here until morning.”
On Saturday, after prayer, breakfast, and the morning briefing at which Father Misha assigns duties to the volunteers, we took the humanitarian supplies to the villages north of Fastiv. Some of them had been under fire from the Russian army; some of them had been under occupation. Although it’s already been a month since the aggressors left, these places still look horrific. We visited villages where more than 70-80% of buildings were destroyed.
Some inhabitants who managed to escape are returning to their homes now. Obviously, if anything remains of them. Others never left. We stopped in Andriivka, a village on the road from Makariv to Borodyanka. Father Misha and his volunteers from Saint Martin’s have already been there multiple times before. We talked to Vitaly, who runs a kiosk that distributes humanitarian supplies. He told us what happened there a couple weeks ago. He pointed to the school building: “A dozen or so women with children were there. The Russians took them somewhere. We don’t know what happened to them and where they are now.” He told us that when the soldiers entered the village, they were searching houses door to door, looking for the Nazis and Banderites [members of a right-wing organization from the 1940s]. Other people who survived the occupation talk about this, too. Among them is Natalia, who now lives in our priory in Kyiv, along with her elderly, sick parents. Before she moved to us, she spent two weeks in a small village near Bucha that was under Russian control. “First, they were looking for the Nazis, and then the next came and stole our stuff. They would take food and anything they wanted. They stole my car parked in front of the house. They simply drove away.” All this time, I am trying to understand, how can these Russian soldiers actually believe they are liberating Ukraine from Nazism? Or maybe they are just justifying their own actions? I don’t know.
We went to another village. Novyi Korohod doesn’t look like it’s been seriously damaged. However, it has been occupied by the Russians. Father Misha distributed more humanitarian supplies. This village was established in 1986 for people who had to resettle from Chornobyl. The mayor of the city greeted us warmly. She told us about her son who wants to go to fight in the war. “But I need him here,” she says. “When the Russians were here, he helped so many of our people; he so often went from home to home whenever something needed to be done or whenever anyone needed anything.” She is right; fighting with a gun isn’t the only way to fight at war. When we asked what they need, she responded simply, “Peace and life.”
As we approached Borodyanka, we saw more destruction. In the neighboring village, Russian tanks used to stand between the houses. We went to one of the houses to bring some food. An elderly couple lives here. The old lady was away. Her husband is blind and has amputated legs. He recognized Father Misha and the volunteers by their voices. In the living room, in a little basket, he keeps tiny chickens. This is a new generation because Russians stole and ate the chickens the couple had before. The old man was very happy with the radio the volunteers had given him during the previous visit. It keeps playing the whole day. As we were leaving, we asked the traditional question of whether he needs anything. The old, sick man responded with a very serious face, “I don’t ask much; please bring me some cigarettes.” It was very moving; he was immediately handed the cigarettes.
We arrived in Borodyanka. This city that neighbors Hostomel, Bucha, and Irpin was almost completely destroyed. The whole world could see pictures of apartment buildings demolished by bombs. In front of one of them is a monument of Taras Shevchenko, one of the most important Ukrainian poets. The attacking forces couldn’t destroy the monument, although you can see the bullet holes in it. A sign is left over with a few lines from the poem written in prison:
Love your Ukraine.
In ferocious times,
in the last difficult minute,
pray to the Lord
(translation by Yuri Zoria)
Next Saturday in Fastiv, Brother Igor Selishchev will be ordained to the priesthood. Igor is from Donetsk. He just finished his studies and formation in Krakow and came to Fastiv when the war started. Please pray for him. The gift of priesthood that he will receive in a time that is very testing, both for Ukraine and for all of us, is a true sign of hope.
I greet you very warmly and ask for your prayer.
Jarosław Krawiec OP,
Kyiv, Thursday, May 5, 12:30am